How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

5 Game of Thrones Characters Who Need to Survive the Final Season

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

"When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die."

These words have haunted Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark, the assumed protagonist of the show, was killed off in the first season of HBO's fantasy epic. You either win or you die. Even if you're a main character, even if you're a likable character, even if you're a sympathetic character. Nobody is safe. With the eighth and final season on its way, the question everyone is asking is: Who will survive to see the end of the series?

While leaks, intentional and otherwise, have confirmed that Jorah Mormont will likely live, it can be safely assumed that someone as evil as Cersei Lannister will probably (hopefully) be killed off. Here are the people who will most likely tell the Many Faced God "Not today."

1. TYRION LANNISTER

Peter Dinklage in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Fans have literally threatened to riot if ​Tyrion Lannister dies. Undoubtedly the most popular character the show has presented, Tyrion's transformation wouldn't be complete if he were killed off. And at this point, watching him triumph against all odds and conquer his family's legacy is half the reason to watch the show. If anyone can win the Game of Thrones, he can—even if he has teased otherwise.

2. LORD VARYS

Conleth Hill as Lord Varys in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

While even purely political players in the Game of Thrones can be killed off, Lord Varys has always kept a healthy distance between himself and anything even resembling action. He always plays on his own terms and makes sure he has an exit strategy at all times. If anything manages to kill him, it better be some huge, shocking event, because he's not going to die from just anything.

3. SAMWELL TARLY

John Bradley as Samwell Tarly in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

​Many people have noticed how the loyal Samwell Tarly is more or less a self-insert character ​meant to represent author George R.R. Martin. While it's entirely possible Samwell might get a hero's death by sacrificing himself to save Gilly and Baby Sam, Martin still has huge sway over the show, and it's unlikely he'd let them kill "him" off.

4. JON SNOW

Kit Harington in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Not only has Jon Snow already died and come back from the dead, but he's been the de facto protagonist of the series since his not-daddy Ned Stark was killed off all the way back in season one. And while the series clearly has no qualms about killing off main characters, the huge reveal of his actual parentage is too big for the show to just kill him off right afterwards.

5. SANSA STARK

Sophie Turner in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Of the three remaining Stark siblings, Sansa seems to be the most likely to get out of the show alive. Apart from actress Sophie Turner inadvertently giving away her character's fate with a tattoo, her survival is all but guaranteed because her special skill, a political instinct she learned from Littlefinger, is perfectly suited to allow her to maneuver herself into a secure position.

Ezra Miller Reportedly Returning for Fantastic Beasts 3

Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.

While fans of Ezra Miller might been upset to hear the news his standalone Flash film for the DC Extended Universe is having production pushed back to late 2019, it's reportedly in part to make time for another major role.

As Variety reported the Flash film was getting pushed back, they seemingly also confirmed Miller's involvement in the third installment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The second film in the series, ​The Crimes of Grindelwald, hits theaters on November 16, and details of the third movie are unknown at this time.

"The third film in the [Fantastic Beasts] franchise begins shooting in July, which would cause scheduling headaches," Variety reported. "The standalone Flash film is now expected to commence production in late 2019. That likely means the superhero adventure won’t debut in theaters until some time in 2021."

Although Miller's character, Credence Barebone, is still a bit of a mystery, it seems he will make it through the second film and will be featured in the third. Johnny Depp, who plays Gellert Grindelwald, confirmed his involvement in the third movie to ​Collider, and it would be safe to assume the series' protagonist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, will be involved.

We hope to learn more about Credence and the rest of the gang (​Nagini included!) when Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald hits theaters next month.

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